HARKING BACK: Trying to make sense of our shifting streets

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, apr 26, 2015

For quite some time a matter that needs a ‘reasonable’ explanation has been bothering me, and bothering me immensely. It is now an established fact that the street level of the walled city of Lahore has risen up to 12 feet from what it was 400 years ago. How and why did this happen?

I speak not from hearsay, but from concrete scientific evidence as it presents itself with time. This immensely important fact of life in the history of walled city of Lahore, probably, has its roots in how invaders treated our city. Or then maybe we ourselves are to blame. For me this realisation took place almost six years ago as I walked through Mohallah Maulian which is situated to the right as you enter Lohari Gate. As I walked through this ancient ‘mohallah’ I saw a historic building being knocked down and a 12-foot deep ditch was being dug to prepare the ground for a new concrete cellar. On the bottom of the ditch floor lay old pottery and some brass utensils, which the new owner was selling for a few odd rupees.

In the deep ditch were old brick arches of an old building that still stood deep in the earth. In any other country the archaeologists would have taken over. But here the evidence of some 700-year old structure was being wittingly razed for the new to take its place. I collected the broken mud pottery pieces for the newly-dug floor and stored them away. Recently I took them to Cambridge University, who after a long process have carbon-dated them as being 3,200 to 4,000 years old. Mind you these were found from the base of a structure 12 feet deep. What still lies further beneath is anyone’s guess.

Most experts agree that this small mound on which is based Mohallah Maulian is where the oldest human dwelling of Lahore existed. In a way this is the first and original Lahore. My friend Mushtaq Soofi tells me that the Punjabi word ‘Maulian’ means the ancient bracelet of brotherhood that old Hindus and Jains used to wear, and is still common among all sub-continental people.

Just for perspective when the first Muslims invaded and ravaged Lahore almost 1,000 years ago, Lohari Gate was the sole gate on the southern side of the walled city. The western walls ran to the eastern side of today’s Bazaar Hakeeman right up to the ‘gumti’ where Tehsil Bazaar starts. On the eastern side to the left is also a long ‘gumti’ that runs right the way to Chowk Rang Mahal. This is where the eastern walls were situated. So Mohallah Maulian was bang in the middle of this oblong mud-walled city.

This was the first time that I realised that underneath the walled city more than one city lies buried. Then there is the so-called ‘secret’ study carried out by British archaeologists in the Lahore Fort in 1952 when a 54-foot deep dig revealed a seven-stage human habitation, one on top of the other. Pottery existed till the fifth stage. Each stage had been judged by experts as representing 500 years. An official project almost 45 years ago while studying the history of Lahore faced a curious problem while using this very information. They were informed that this was a ‘State Secret’. I suppose even today our history beyond 1,000 years is taboo, a threat instead of a cementing phenomenon. The great Prof. Dr. Daud Rahbar in 1952 described the holy book as a ‘constantly flowing book of eternal knowledge’ not a static document. He had to run for his life. That very much remains the case.

But then we must give credit to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for taking on the Shahi Hammam project. The Aga Khan, mind you a man with a UN Head of State status, has not been treated correctly. When an official State guest has to pay for his food and other expenses, there is something terribly wrong with the State. That his interest in Pakistan has waned somewhat should not come as a surprise. But then his great grandfather was among the founders of Pakistan, and he is kind enough to keep coming back to assist.

His team, led by that remarkable man called Masood Khan, started digging and soon they uncovered 12 feet below the surface a totally new reality. They decided not to cover it, but to present it to the people of Pakistan in a format that will startle everyone. Within 400 years the main Delhi Gate bazaar (Kashmiri Bazaar) has risen by an amazing 12 feet. Credit is also due to the new Walled City Authority who faced facts and let the project take shape.

As the Wazir Khan Mosque project work has started they have found that the original floor base at the outer gates was also eight feet below its present level. That is there for all to see. This bring forth the proposition that has been bothering me. What happened for this dramatic rise in the ground surface of the entire walled city to take place? The evidence is collecting fast, very fast, and a new dig at a house knocked down in Chunna Mandi has again thrown up this amazing proposition. What exactly happened for this amazing rise in the ground surface? The evidence is overwhelming, of this there is absolutely no doubt. Now let us try to figure exactly what happened.

My dear friend Sajjad Kausar, a renowned architect, is of the view that during the various, and continued, invasions from the west, especially during the Nadir Shahi period, the city was demolished considerably, and each time rebuilt when the Afghans left. During their stay, besides stealing and raping, they would dig up houses and streets to look for hidden treasure. In every period they did find some, so it was normal for the Afghans to search in this fashion.

“In the rebuilding stage, purely local efforts, the street levels would rise, unevenly, by two to three feet, even as they today do when such an operation takes place” is the opinion of Sajjad Kausar. It would be interesting to carbon-date the street layers to determine the number of times they have been dug, or rebuilt after a thorough ravaging by invaders. The result of this rise also has been that if you walk through the narrow lanes, they rise and fall rapidly. It was patchwork filling. I call them the waves of our history.

In the layers of rebuilding the streets, the basic structures of the buildings, naturally, held their own level. Hence we see the gateway of the Wazir Khan mosque narrowing as the outer street level rose. The classic case is that of the ‘Neveen Masjid’ inside Lohari Gate which is a good over 800 years old. The entire mosque is a massive 15 feet below the current street level.

How should we proceed in correcting this? For starters should the entire walled city to be declared an archaeological/historic site? These are grave questions, and if we all face massive walls of resistance, it should not come as a surprise.



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